What is Ventricular Fibrillation (VF)?

Ventricular fibrillation is an emergency heart condition that may occur when sudden, rapid electrical heart impulses cut off the blood supply to the vital organs. Ventricular fibrillation often happens when heart muscle is damaged from a previous heart attack.

People who have experienced a previous heart attack are more likely to experience a ventricular fibrillation episode.

It is essential for emergency treatment for ventricular fibrillation to occur as quickly as possible during or after the episode.

As soon as the heart rhythm is restored, your doctor will treat the underlying condition. 

Causes of ventricular fibrillation (VF)

Ventricular fibrillation is a severe heart rhythm disorder. During a VF episode, your heart races erratically out of control. When this occurs, your heart cannot pump blood effectively, cutting off the blood supply to the brain and other vital organs.

A heart attack can trigger ventricular fibrillation.

The most common causes of ventricular fibrillation are issues with the electrical impulses through the heart or problems with your heart’s muscle tissue caused by a previous heart attack.

Other causes of VF include:

  • Reduced blood flow to the heart.
  • Cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease).
  • Sepsis (blood infection).
  • Issues in the aorta.
  • Untreated ventricular tachycardia.
  • Drug toxicity.

In some cases, the cause of ventricular fibrillation is unknown.;

Risk factors of ventricular fibrillation (VF)

The most common risk factors for VF include:

  • Cardiomyopathy (a disease in the heart muscle).
  • Prior heart attack.
  • Genetic heart conditions such as long or short QT syndrome, Brugada disease, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
  • Medications that affect heart function.
  • Imbalanced electrolyte levels.
  • Use of illegal drugs such as cocaine or Crystal meth.

Symptoms of ventricular fibrillation (VF)

The most common sign of VF is fainting or losing consciousness. Other symptoms or signs include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Extremely rapid heartbeat.
  • Dizziness.
  • Nausea.
  • Shortness of breath.

If a friend or a loved one suddenly loses consciousness, seek immediate medical care and, if possible, begin CPR right away.

Complications of ventricular fibrillation (VF)

Immediate medical care is crucial to avoid long-term or fatal complications associated with VF.

If your body is deprived of blood for too long, severe brain and organ damage can occur. Death can occur quickly if you do not receive prompt treatment.

Diagnosing ventricular fibrillation (VF)

Ventricular fibrillation is diagnosed as an emergency. First responders will know if you are experiencing a ventricular fibrillation episode if you do not have a pulse. A heart monitor can determine your heart is racing at an abnormal pace.

Your doctor may order additional tests to determine the underlying cause of your ventricular fibrillation. Tests may include:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG is a cardiovascular test used to record the electrical activity of the heart.
  • Blood tests. Blood tests can reveal if heart enzymes have leaked into the heart muscle after a heart attack.
  • Chest X-ray. Chest X-rays are used to check the size of the blood vessels and the heart.
  • Echocardiogram (ECHO). An ECHO uses sound waves to generate an image of the heart.
  • Angiogram. An angiogram will reveal if your coronary arteries are narrowed or blocked.
  • Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan collects images of the heart and lungs.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A cardiac MRI produces detailed images of the heart.

Treatment for ventricular fibrillation (VF)

Treatment for VF needs to start immediately. To restore blood flow, start CPR as quickly as possible. CPR can mimic the pumping motion of the heart. Anyone can perform CPR by pushing hard and fast on a person’s chest at approximately 100 compressions per minute. If you are not trained in CPR, do not breathe into the person’s mouth.

When possible, use a portable defibrillator (AED) to kickstart the heart back into rhythm. An AED uses electrical shocks through the chest wall to stop the abnormal heart rhythm.

Once the blood flow is resumed, your doctor will develop a treatment plan to prevent future episodes.

Treatments may include:

  • Anti-arrhythmic or beta-blocker medications. Medications can control your heart rhythm.
  • Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). An ICD can monitor your heart’s rhythm and shock it back into a rhythm during a VF episode.
  • Coronary angioplasty. Coronary angioplasty can open a blocked artery.
  • Coronary bypass surgery. Coronary bypass surgery can restore blood flow to the heart by opening up narrowed or blocked arteries.

When to seek care

Seek immediate care if someone you know is experiencing symptoms of VF. When possible, begin CPR immediately to help the blood flow through the body.

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